CHARBENS PRE-WAR VEHICLES
Robert Newson examines these rare lead toys from the 1930s.
Put your mouse over the thumbnail images to see the picture caption, and click on the thumbnail to enlarge.
In previous issues of Diecast Collector (Nov.2006 to Feb.2007 inclusive) I covered the post-war Charbens vehicles, so now we can look back to their pre-war items. This is rather more difficult for the researcher because all pre-war Charbens motor vehicles are scarce, and some are so rare that I am only aware of one example. Several of the toys featured in this article have never before been described or illustrated in collectors' literature.
I have been helped by a 1930s Charbens catalogue which survived (incomplete) in the factory and shows many of the vehicles. Some of the catalogue pages are reproduced here, again (as far as I know) for the first time. The catalogue is no earlier than 1936, but precise dating has not been possible.
I am going to mention the animal-drawn models but not describe them in detail, mainly because I do not have examples to hand. They have all been covered in the book Hollow Cast Civilian Toy Figures* by Norman Joplin and Philip Dean, which is something of a bible for lead figures collectors. Pre-war vehicles were all cast in lead, until wartime restrictions banned metal toys, after which some items were made in plaster. I have found no evidence of zinc diecasting in Charbens' pre-war output.
Charbens was founded around 1925-7 by two brothers, Charles and Ben Reid. I gave a more detailed run-down of the company's history at the start of my post-war article (Diecast Collector November 2006). I won't repeat that here, in case the editor thinks I am trying to get paid twice for the same material! Their first vehicles (of sorts) were the horse-drawn roller, the little goat cart and the costermonger's donkey cart. These were advertised to the trade in Games & Toys magazine in 1928. Also mentioned was a reaper - if this was a horse drawn item, I am not familiar with it. Charbens also used the services of an agent, W.Fasham & Son of 1 Bickerton Road, Upper Holloway, N19, to distribute their toys, and Fasham also advertised in Games & Toys.
A 1929 review of the Charbens exhibit at the British Industries Fair mentioned the tree wagon, farm cart (presumably the hay cart), tip cart and tar boiler (all horse-drawn of course). After that, Charbens products were strangely absent from Games & Toys, so dating is difficult.
Charbens lead items are often marked RD (presumably "Registered Design"). Some have the name MIMIC TOY and/or CHARBENS cast. Mimic Toy was a brand name that Charbens used in the 1930s, somewhat ironic as many of their toys were mimics of Britains and other manufacturers! Where vehicles were individually boxed, the boxes were usually of the lift-off lid style, in plain card with a paper label. Often the Charbens name was not mentioned, while the box for the milk float was marked MIMIC METAL SERIES.
Pre-war Animal Drawn VehiclesThese are the catalogue pages showing animal drawn items:-
The individual models are as follows (listed in numerical order).
Goat Cart with Child Passenger
First issued 1928 but not shown in the catalogue. RD cast underneath. The green cart in the fourth and fifth photos appears to be from a different die - it has different decoratiom on the side of the cart, and the underside is completely different.
No.432 The Llama Ride
Consists of the Governess Cart (no.521, see below) with llama, four children and zookeeper. RD cast underneath the llama. The box label wraps onto the end of the box, with THE LLAMA RIDE, 432 printed on it. Taylor & Barrett also produced a Llama Ride with a very similar cart, and this was continued by F.G.Taylor after the war.
No.500 Horse-Drawn Gypsy Caravan
Also available as no.501 with gypsy man, woman with baby, and camp fire. RD CHARBENS cast underneath. Note the two different versions of the shafts on the models pictured - in the first two photos the caravans have shafts which are separate from the turntable which carries the front axle, and are attached by a wire which allows the shafts to hinge up and down. Also there are holes through the shafts so that the horse can be attached by a wire passing through his body. The later blue caravan in the third photo has the shafts and turntable as one casting, and no holes to attach the horse. The same variation occurs on the farm wagon and probably on other models.
No.503 Horse-Drawn Four-wheel Farm Wagon with raves and farmer
Re-issued post-war in zinc (see Post-war Part 1 for pictures). The pre-war wagon can be recognised by the lattice floor. RD cast on the front of the wagon and on the raves.
No.505 Horse-Drawn Two-wheel Hay Cart with raves
First issued 1929. This was no.817 Tip Cart with the addition of hay raves. CHARBENS RD cast underneath. On at least some examples, the tipping action was inhibited by a pice of wire. Re-issued post-war in zinc (see Post-war Part 1).
No.506 Horse-Drawn Roller
First issued 1928. RD cast on end of roller. There were two different castings of the shafts, as shown in the photos. Also the first photo shows a rare Charbens hollow-cast horse without a saddle. This horse was pictured in the pre-war catalogue with the roller and as the leading horse of the timber wagon. The second photo shows the much more common pre-war hollow-cast horse with a saddle.
No.513 Horse-Drawn Log Wagon with two tandem horses
First issued 1929. This had a wood dowel as the main chassis member, and hollow cast lead bolsters at each end. Re-issued post-war in zinc (see Post-war Part 1). The horse was hollow cast lead with RD cast twice underneath, later with CHARBENS added as well. The zinc post-war horse is at first sight very similar, but is easy to identify because it was cast in two halves. There was also a post-war log wagon with a wood dowel chassis, but with thinner and more delicate bolsters in diecast zinc. The pre-war wagon always had heavy lead bolsters.
No.521 Donkey-Drawn Governess Cart with two children
The Charbens cart comes with or without the name CHARBENS cast, and there is a variation with a closed rear and no step. The Taylor & Barrett cart has MADE IN ENGLAND cast underneath, with or without T&B cast. The fourth and fifth photos show another version which appears to be from a different die - possibly zinc diecast and therefore post-war? The last photo shows variations of the donkey - on the left is the hollow-cast lead donkey with RD cast underneath; in the centre is the same model but with additional harness added, again with RD cast underneath; at the right is the post-war zinc diecast donkey, cast in two halves and with no lettering on the model.
No.522 Cape Cart with pony and man
No.523 Pony and Cart, with man and sack
No.738 Pony and Milk Cart, with man and churn
PURE MILK cast on sides, MADE IN ENGLAND CHARBENS MIMIC TOY cast underneath. Re-issued post-war in zinc (see Post-war Part 3).
No.800 Horse-Drawn Coal Cart, with coalman and two sacks
No.815 Horse-Drawn Pitch Boiler with man
First issued 1929.
No.816 Horse-Drawn Railway Wagon with driver
This had LONDON MIDLAND & SCOTTISH RAILWAY CO. cast on each side. A different box is shown in Hollow Cast Civilian Toy Figures* on page 223, with CHARBENS & CO.LTD. on the label. I now suspect that that box is not original, for several reasons, including the fact that Charbens did not become a limited company till 1943.
No.817 Horse-Drawn Tip Cart
First issued 1929. See notes above under no.505.
No.821 Horse-Drawn Milk Float with milkman - "United Dairies"
Painted orange. Rubber tyres.
No.822 Horse-Drawn Milk Float with milkman - "Express Dairy"
Painted dark blue. Rubber tyres.
No.823 Horse-Drawn Baker's Van with man and basket
Rubber tyres. No identification cast on the model.
No.854 Horse-Drawn Coffee Stall with man
Not in the catalogue, but the model number is shown on the box pictured in Hollow Cast Civilian Toy Figures* on page 266. I have some doubts about the authenticity of that box, whereas the example pictured here looks genuine.
This and the baker's van are possibly the rarest of the pre-war animal-drawn toys.
No.855 Donkey-Drawn Street Organ with organ grinder and monkey
The donkey was the same as used for the governess cart (no.521, see above).
No.901 Donkey-Drawn Costermonger's Cart with man and basket
First issued 1928, open lattice design as in the catalogue picture. RD cast underneath the donkey and the basket. Note the early paint scheme on the coster figure in the first photo, with his cap and base painted in different colours. Two further different coster carts were issued post-war (see Post-war Part 3).
The coster cart in the second and third pictures is marked METAL MODELS ENG. underneath, but came with the Charbens donkey and has the same wheels as the pre-war milk cart. There was also a Metal Models farm cart, pictured in the fourth and fifth pictures. These were presumably made by Charbens, but it is not known why they were not marked as such.
Pre-War Motor VehiclesNow I can turn to the motor vehicles, which for me are more significant because they have not had the benefit of books or articles written about them before. There are two catalogue pages showing motor vehicles:-
The car and caravan were also pictured in a boxed "Hikers Camp Set", with a tent (marked THE HIKERY), hiker figures and other accessories.
This is a page of Charbens items from the wholesale catalogue of the East London Rubber Co.Ltd. for Winter 1938-9. It pictures the car and caravan, the fire engine, and a Road Traffic Set including the motor van, petrol tanker and motorcycles. There are also various horse-drawn models. Images are the same as in Charbens' own catalogue. The page helps to confirm the chronology of the pre-war vehicles, explained in the sections that follow.
Tootsietoy CopiesI think the earliest Charbens motor vehicles are the copies of American Tootsietoys - the Mack trucks, Tank and Caterpillar Tractor. None of these is in the catalogue, and they may have been discontinued before it was issued. It is well known that Johillco, another lead figures manufacturer from north London, made copies of a large part of the 1931 Tootsietoy line, and Johillco's success with these items (introduced in 1932) probably prompted Charbens to make their own versions of a few of them. In each photo I have put the Charbens model on the left and the Johillco on the right (and in the first two photos, the Tootsietoy is in the centre).
Mack Stake Truck
Length 81mm, green cab/chassis with red stake body and black wheels.
The Charbens Macks are a more faithful copy of the Tootsietoy original than the Johillco. Johillco deleted the Mack badge at the front of the bonnet, and used a huge variety of wheel types, whereas the Charbens always has the Mack badge, and wheels are very close to the Tootsietoy metal wheels, with bolt heads around the wheel rim. Also, the Charbens stake truck body has a half-height tailboard, like the Tootsie. If you have a stake body on its own, it is Charbens if it has just one rivet to connect it to the chassis. The Johillco and Tootsietoy bodies both have two rivets (closer together on the Johillco).
Mack Anti-Aircraft Gun Truck
Length 70mm, olive brown cab/chassis, black wheels, black gun cradle, silver plated gun.
The Johillco gun is recognisable by the thicker crescent-shaped gear. Also the Johillco guns always seem to be mounted the other way round in the cradle from the Charbens (the Tootsie guns can be found either way). The Charbens gun is again more faithful to the Tootsietoy original. Charbens guns appear to have been silver plated rather than painted.
Mack Searchlight Truck
Length 69mm, olive brown cab/chassis, black wheels, black cradle, red searchlight with unpainted "lens".
The Charbens searchlight was a single hollow casting, and you can see the pour hole in the casting. The lens area was simply left unpainted. The Johillco searchlight had a shiny tin insert for the lamp lens, as did the Tootsietoy.
The lettering cast underneath the Charbens Mack truck went through three stages:
(1) RD cast (twice).
(2) RD (twice) and MIMIC TOY cast.
(3) MIMIC TOY and MADE IN ENGLAND CHARBENS cast.
The Johillco Macks all had MADE IN ENGLAND under the cab roof and TOY MADE IN ENGLAND cast under the load platform. Tootsietoy Macks were usually marked with the maker's name, but early versions can be completely plain, without lettering. For more information on all pre-war Tootsietoys, please see my website http://www.tootsietoys.info/ .
Length 79mm, olive brown or very dark blue, unpainted wheels, white rubber tracks.
MIMIC TOY ENGLAND cast underneath. The Johillco and Tootsietoy tanks were also clearly marked, so there should be no difficulty identifying them. On most examples the original rubber tracks have perished.
Length 81mm, red or green, unpainted wheels, white rubber tracks.
With or without MIMIC TOY cast underneath. All models had ENGLAND underneath the driver's seat position and RD in a diamond on each side. The Charbens version of this model was rather larger than the Johillco and Tootsietoy examples. The Johillco just has MADE IN ENGLAND underneath, and the diamond logo on the sides is blank, while the Tootsietoy has a letter T cast inside the diamond.
The Charbens copies of Tootsietoys are all rather harder to find than the corresponding Johillco copies, but they do turn up from time to time and are not what I would call "rare".
Other Diecast and Hollow-cast VehiclesThe models in this group seem to come next chronologically. None of them appeared in the catalogue (except the large racer) and they did not last long enough in the range to be fitted with rubber tyres (except the Blue Bird). I would guess these date from around 1934-6.
Length 96mm, cream (including wheels) with gold and red trim. CHARBENS cast underneath, red cross cast on doors.
The metal wheels are a unique design for this model. The bonnet and chassis are one casting (including mudguards), with a separate body secured by two twisted tabs through slots in the chassis. This construction is similar to early Taylor & Barrett vehicles (introduced in 1933 or possibly earlier), and raises the possibility of different bodies being fitted to the chassis, as was done by T&B. But never mind other variations, it is hard enough to find one example of this very rare toy!
Length 102mm, dark red (including wheels), silver trim.
MADE IN CHARBENS ENGLAND cast under roof and MIMIC TOY under bonnet. A rather ugly toy that bears no resemblance to any real-life car that I can think of. The wheels were hollow cast, and each has a small air hole! Just as rare as the ambulance.
Length about 120mm
A one-piece casting painted khaki, with white rubber tracks. ENGLAND and MIMIC TOY cast underneath. Another rare model.
No.864 Large Racing Car
Length 103mm, dark green or red (including wheels), silver trim, white overalls and flesh colour face on driver.
Pictured in the catalogue and recognisable by the large petrol cap on the tail. MIMIC TOY MADE IN ENGLAND was cast underneath. Like the coupe this was a single piece diecasting, and also had the same hollow cast wheels. This is another rarity.
Smaller Racing Car
Length 88mm, blue (shades vary considerably), yellow or dark green (including wheels), all with silver and black trim. White overalls, flesh colour face and hands and brown helmet on the driver. MIMIC TOY RD ENGLAND CHARBENS cast underneath.
This was a hollow casting, including the base, with the air hole at the front, just below the radiator cap. It can be found with two types of wheel, either the hollow cast wheels, as on the coupe and the large racer, or a slightly smaller diameter plain disc wheel with simulated tyre, which became the standard Charbens pre-war wheel type (see photo). In fact this wheel was widely used, not only by Charbens but by Johillco and Crescent before the war and by Charbens again after the war on their no.8 Tipper Lorry. It also appeared on some models by unknown makers. The wheels were no doubt produced by one of these firms and sold as a component part to anyone who wished to use them. The small racer is a little easier to find than the large one.
1935 Blue Bird Record Car
Length 127mm, dark blue. CHARBENS MADE IN ENGLAND cast underneath, crossed flags cast on nose.
This is the famous car in which Malcolm Campbell took the land speed record to 301mph on 3 September 1935. It was modelled by several manufacturers at the time, including one by Britains where the body can be lifted off to show a detailed chassis. At the cheaper end of the market was the Charbens model, available with either the standard wheels or lead hubs and white rubber tyres. It is a little more common than the other items in this section.
Length 106mm, green or red, silver wings and tail, black wheels, tan pilot with flesh colour face.
Not a road vehicle of course, but I had to include this very rare toy if only as a request for further information. The body was a lead hollow casting with MIMIC TOY ENGLAND cast underneath and including the rather fragile undercarriage (broken on the green example shown). Missing from both models pictured are the wings, which somehow must have attached to the pins projecting from the fuselage - were they lead? Update - many thanks to Ron Blair, who found one original lead wing, allowing reproductions to be made (see the third photo above). The wings were just a push-fit. There would also have been a separate propeller, again was this lead or tin? The wheels were the same as on the Mack trucks. If you have any more information (ideally a photo of a complete example) please e-mail me. Post-war, Charbens made two rather crude solid lead planes which are in the post-war article.
Slush Cast Vehicles
From here on, the vehicles were slush castings - similar to a hollow cast model but with an open base so that the rough interior of the casting was visible (from which excess molten metal had been poured out). This contrasts with a diecast model, where the die is filled with only the required amount of metal (no excess is poured out) and the mould forms every surface of the casting. Slush casting became enormously popular in the USA for toy car manufacture in the late 1920s and 1930s, with at least half a dozen different firms making a huge range of items, but never really took off in the UK.
Apart from the first two items, these were all shown in the catalogue. Most of them had the standard type wheels, and many also appeared with lead diecast metal hubs and white rubber tyres. Following the introduction of rubber tyres by Tootsietoys in 1933, there was something of a "craze" for this feature on miniature cars, and other manufacturers had to work rapidly to add rubber tyres to their 1934 ranges. It was similar to the craze for low friction wheels inspired by Hot Wheels in 1968.
Ambulance with man at rear
Length 98mm, dark blue, dark green or brown (including wheels), all with gold, white and red trim and flesh colour face on the man. CHARBENS RD ENGLAND cast underneath.
This model, with a cast-in attendant perched precariously on the rear step, was inspired by two very similar American slush toys made by Savoye/Tommy Toy. The American version of the Ambulance had a single long window on each side to the rear of the driver, and so the Charbens version was not an exact copy, having two side windows more like the American Police Van. The American toys were made in New Jersey by Savoye Pewter Toy Co. around 1934 (probably no earlier because of the rubber tyres, as mentioned before). The firm closed around 1936 and it seems that the moulds were acquired by Tommy Toy, also of New Jersey. Versions with solid rubber wheels rather than separate tyres are usually said to be the Tommy Toy re-issues from around 1936-39 (information from Richard O'Brien's book*). The Charbens Ambulance had the standard type of wheels and is reasonably common.
Length 102mm, dark brown or dark brown/green camouflage (including wheels). CHARBENS LONDON MADE IN ENGLAND cast underneath.
This must have had a fairly long run, because it is also reasonably common, and was produced in plaster during the war (see later).
No.6 Petrol Tanker
Length 94mm, yellow, dark blue, red or green, all with black and gold trim. CHARBENS ENGLAND cast underneath. Standard wheels or metal hubs with rubber tyres.
The easiest pre-war vehicle to find, in my experience. Like the Armoured Car it was probably produced until the war, and was followed by a very rare plaster version (see later).
No.524 Fire Engine
Length 95mm, red with white and gold trim, flesh colour face on driver. No identification cast on the model. The first version (pictured left) had two hooks cast to support the ladder (the front hook is broken on the example pictured). The later version (centre and right) had the hooks replaced by simple bars and also had two indentations cast just forward of the rear ladder support which might allow a ladder to stand upright. This version had blue trim on the driver and can be found with the standard wheels as well as metal hubs with rubber tyres. The catalogue illustration shows a simple ladder that would have been supplied with this model. It is a charming and evocative toy, one of my favourites in the range, and is also quite rare.
No.525 Saloon Car and Caravan
Lengths 95mm (car), 82mm (caravan). No identification on the models. Standard wheels. Has anyone seen a rubber tyred version?
Car colours: grey, blue, red, green or yellow, all with black wings and gold trim.
Caravan colours (first colour is for the top half and wheels, second colour is the bottom half): yellow/orange or yellow/red or yellow/green or green/blue or green/mauve or blue/mauve or yellow/mauve.
The car is another evocative little model, one of very few contemporary toys representing a typical medium size British saloon car of the late 1930s. Dinky Toys tended to model larger luxury cars, while the T&B saloon car is undoubtedly a Citroen! The caravan was closely copied from Dinky Toy no.30g, and hence can be no earlier than 1936 when the Dinky Toy was introduced. Car and caravan were joined together by a piece of twisted wire passing through adjacent holes in the two castings. They can be found with open or solid windows. Fairly hard to find.
No.526 Motor Van
Length 105mm, orange-brown with green canopy, gold and black trim. No identification. Metal hubs with rubber tyres.
This is a superb piece of slush casting. Obviously copied from the Dinky Toy 25 series, Charbens managed to re-create in a single casting a model for which Dinky needed four separate components (chassis, body, grille and canopy). Perhaps they did have casting difficulties with this model, because it is very rare, although it was pictured and listed (twice) in the catalogue. Delightful.
No.728 Bentley Ambulance
Length 97mm, Off-white (including wheels), gold and red trim. No identification. Standard wheels or metal hubs with rubber tyres.
Another Dinky copy, this time of the 24a or 30f Ambulance. Open or solid windows. The catalogue picture is somewhat approximate, but I think is meant to be this ambulance rather than one of the two earlier Charbens ambulances. Hard to find.
No.865 Breakdown Lorry
Listed in the catalogue (with rubber tyres) but never seen. Does it exist? Please e-mail me with photographic evidence if you have one!
No.823 Police Motorcycle
Length 71mm. Unpainted cycle, with or without green petrol tank and black trim; dark blue rider with white and flesh colour trim. RD cast on right side of the petrol tank.
The pre-war motorcycle had non-functioning wheels and a separate rider.
No.824 Police Motorcycle with Sidecar
Length about 80mm. Unpainted cycle with or without green petrol tank and black trim; dark blue sidecar and rider with white and flesh colour trim. Sidecar either has a non-functioning wheel with painted mudguard, or a moveable unpainted wheel attached by a wire axle. RD cast on right side of the petrol tank and on the side of the sidecar.
The passenger was cast in as part of the sidecar. There is a similar Johillco model, but it has the Johillco name clearly cast.
The plaster models were from new moulds, but were similar to their metal forebears, with the exception of the small armoured car which was a new design. They were all solid castings with the standard metal wheels. They are extremely rare and were produced during the war when there was a ban on manufacturing metal toys. Quite possibly other subjects were modelled - please let us know if you have something different.
Large Armoured Car
Length about 100mm, green and brown camouflage, standard metal wheels.
Small Armoured Car
Length 80mm (excluding guns), green and brown camouflage, standard metal wheels. This had two vicious sharp nails representing gun barrels!
Length 106mm, red with black and gold trim, standard metal wheels.
Length 102mm, red with black and silver trim, standard metal wheels.
Thanks to Patrick Trench and Sam Seaman for allowing me to photograph several of their models, and to Bonhams, Christie's, Vectis Auctions and Michel Sordet* for other photos.
Hollow Cast Civilian Toy Figures by Norman Joplin and Philip Dean, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2005.
The Great Book of Hollow-Cast Figures by Norman Joplin, New Cavendish Books, 1993.
Collecting Toy Cars & Trucks by Richard O'Brien, Krause Publications, 2nd edition 1997. This is the best reference book for American slush cast automotive toys. I believe there are now third and fourth editions as well.
Photos by Michel Sordet are taken from Les Jouets Anglais au 1/43 (CD-ROM), published by MaCollection, www.macosordet.com.